The role of monstrous bodies in Tod Browning's FREAKS

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

21 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Freaks

3. Monstrous bodies

4. Outlook

5. Conclusion


List of references

1. Introduction

“I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo. What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here.” (Radiohead – Creep, 1993)[1]

Since the beginning of mankind there have always been a few humans who differed from the vast majority. They showed (and still show) various features which separated them from “normal people”. These characteristics can be caused by genetic defects or other, medical reasons and lead to a life “outside of the boundaries of ‘normal’”.[2] Physically and / or mentally they differ from the majority. Some are taller than average people, some are smaller. Some are hermaphrodites. Some have missing or extra body parts, some lack extremities at all. These so called “freaks” are defined by as having “an abnormally formed organism” and “regarded as a curiosity or monstrosity”.[3]

Tod Browning’s film Freaks deals with handicapped people, who comply with this definition and will be the core theme of this term paper, so that the role of monstrous bodies in this specific movie will be explained and analyzed. In order to do that, it will be started with a rendering of the movie’s content, important basic facts about it and its’ effect on the viewers and the critics, before the analysis will be focused. Are the “freaks” in the movie creeps and weirdos or aren’t they and if so, what else are they if anything? What was Browning’s aim concerning the role of the “freaks” in his movie and did he reach the goals he had in his mind or didn’t he? Questions like these shall be discussed and answered, followed by an outlook, whether the circumstances have changed today or if they are still the same as they were in the early 1930s. Therefore other kinds of media like youtube-videos and songs will be included and compared with scenes and /or the meaning of the movie. You will get into contact with such “freaks” as the role of them in the movie will be the major topic of this term paper. “If you don’t feel at ease with abnormality please step out, otherwise try to understand and let the freak flag fly”.[4]

2. Freaks

After the success of the movie Dracula director Charles Albert Browning who later on renamed himself Tod Browning[5] set out „to make a more ambitious version of the many successful circus films then being produced” (Baxter 1970; 101) in 1932, which resulted in the (in)famous movie Freaks. (Herzogenrath 2006; 11) It was based on the short story Spurs, which was published by Tod Robbins in 1923 in Munsey’s Magazine and originally lasted up to ninety minutes. (Stresau 1987; 209) Because of censorship in a lot of states and countries due to the effect it had on people seeing it, it got truncated in hindsight, so that merely sixty-one minutes remained. As lots of protests in print media and by women’s associations mounted and neither the critics nor the audience liked the movie, MGM ordered to remove their emblem from every copy and even backtracked Freaks afterwards, so that it wasn’t presented any more until 1963 (Penner / Schneider / Duncan 2008; 40). By that time it returned to screens in England and became a classic of the horror-genre, particularly because of Browning’s ability to get rid of subjectivism (Jung / Weil / Seeßlen, 1977; 41). Though Browning died on October 6th 1962, he wasn’t able to witness this belated success, so that during his lifetime and concerning his career Freaks must be seen as a deathblow to his occupational development (Penner / Schneider / Duncan 2008; 40).

The plot of Freaks mainly revolves around a sideshow travelling through the United States of America and exhibits the Lilliputian Hans, played by Harry Earles, as the central character. It starts with a short introduction during which a mountebank directs the attention of the visitors of his freak-show to something which is obviously very shocking, due to the reactions of the people in the movie watching it, but cannot yet be seen. The story of Freaks starts at this point as a flashback and tells the story which leads to this specific happening. The first half of the movie is then created similar to soap-operas nowadays – the different characters are introduced to the audience and everyday circus-life is presented. In Browning’s eyes the methods and locations he used and harked back to were not simply used for the reason of creating metaphors dealing with alienation and the corporative production of mavericks, but also a way of reconditioning his own past implicating experiences he gained while he was working at circuses and cabarets himself (Jung / Weil / Seeßlen 1977; 44). The special thing about the actors was that Browning cast real “freaks” – people who were mentally or physically disabled. The viewer is introduced to these “freaks” during an outing in the country when they are at first filmed from a remote distance and cannot be identified as such so far. When the camera moves closer, a grotesque group of dancing, crawling and hopping “things” is shown, which on closer examination turn out not to be monsters or animals but people.

Subsequently the relevant action takes place.[6] Hans, who is engaged with Frieda [his sister Daisy Earles], falls in love with Cleopatra [Olga Baclanova], the non-handicapped bloom, who works as an aerialist in the same circus, but has an affair with another carny called Hercules [Henry Victor]. The two of them contrive a plan how to get hold of Hans’ money, which he has inherited before, containing the insidiousness of Cleopatra to marry him. During the wedding ceremony where all the “freaks” of the movie are present they start to perform a song entitled “Gooble, gobble – one of us” as a fraternity pledging for Cleopatra to become a member of their group of outsiders, but in spite of singing with them and joining their companionship she starts to laugh them down and makes jokes at their expense. After the two of them entered into matrimony Cleopatra and her boyfriend Hercules try to poison Hans to deprive him of his money, but meanwhile Hans and his “freak-friends” got suspicious of their behavior and realize their gory plan. In a stormy night the revenge of the “freaks” takes place (Schifferle 1994; 58). We see the “freaks” who all stick together and avenge for what Hercules and Cleopatra were trying to do to Hans (poisoning). They knife Hercules down and, as it is reported in several sources, castrate him – though you cannot be sure, that this really happened in the original movie because this part is missing in the version we know nowadays.[7] Cleopatra gets mutilated in such a way that from that time onwards she is “one of them” as shown in the last scene of the film in which she can be seen as a mixture of a chicken and a woman, legless, clucking and not able to speak properly any more which was the other part of the revenge (Worland 2007; 63 / Herzogenrath 2006; 182f.).[8] The happy ending of Hans’ and Frieda’s reunion in his house was added to the film subsequently, as it was desired by the studio MGM, maybe having the intention to soften the film’s horror and violence subsequently.

3.) Monstrous bodies

“Will you call her a freak, will you call them freaks or will you call them gods?” (Live – Freaks, 1997)[9]

Most of Browning’s melodramas fall into three major categories: 1) Exotic melodramas, 2) crook melodramas and 3) bizarre melodramas that focus on physically deformed or freakishly disguised characters in situations that go beyond even the melodramatically ‘normative’ (Sobchack 2006; 22). Obviously Freaks belongs to the third group being so intensive that it caused a scandal (Herzogenrath 2006; 11). As it can be seen by the release date and the time, when it was rediscovered, the movie was ahead of one’s time (Penner / Schneider / Duncan 2008; 42). This is also depicted in the vast majority of critics, that didn’t seem to be able to cope with the films’ content. It was “too strong for some of its exhibitors, who flatly refused to run in after a disastrous preview in San Diego… during which a woman ran screaming up the aisle”, Carlos Clarens pointed out (Clarens 1971; 108). Other articles contained conclusions like “not even the most morbidly inclined could possibly find this picture to their liking” or “it is revolting to the extent of turning one’s stomach, and only an iron constitution could withstand its effects.” An additional description noted that “anyone who considers this entertainment should be placed in the pathological ward in some hospital” (Sobchack 2006; 28). Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons reported, that she felt as if she “had suddenly fallen asleep and was having a weird nightmare” (Herzogenrath 2006; 182). Others were written to be “enthralled because the “freaks” in the film were not imaginary monsters but real” (Bosworth / Arbus 1985; 365). Freaks was one of the films, which, due to the testing of the limits of violence and morbid sexual gestures in it, led to the starting of a censorship in Hollywood (Worland 2007; 66 / 124), which finally ended up in the cutting down of the movie and even in bans in some cities / countries (Worland 2007; 62). Though most of the reviews were formulated in such a way, there were also some which were quite sympathetic, pointing out that it was an interesting movie and that “I didn’t have nightmares, nor did I attempt to murder any of my relatives”, so that it wasn’t as hard as the majority of the critics wanted the possible cinemagoer to believe (Sobchack 2006; 28).


[1], 24.06.2009 /, 24.06.2009.

[2], 02.05.09.

[3], 22.06.09.

[4], 02.05.09.

[5] See image 2.

[6], 23.06.2009

[7], 23.06.2009.

[8] See image 3.

[9], 24.06.2009. /, 24.06.2009.

Excerpt out of 21 pages


The role of monstrous bodies in Tod Browning's FREAKS
University of Cologne  (Englische Seminar 1)
The films of Tod Browning
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Browning, FREAKS
Quote paper
Stefan Langenbach (Author), 2009, The role of monstrous bodies in Tod Browning's FREAKS, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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